We end our weeklong odyssey with Edward Burne-Jones’ conception of Perseus with The Baleful Head. In this picture, Perseus shows Andromeda the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Because gazing directly into the Gorgon’s face will turn a mortal into stone, they look upon its reflection in a pool of water.
This is, in many ways, the most remarkable picture in the series. The head of Medusa, one of the most hideous monsters of ancient mythology, here looks serene and harmless. Her lifeless head is indeed at peace, and one could argue that the monster is as beautiful as the heroine, Andromeda. Ugliness was not consistent with the way Burne-Jones saw the world, and it was impossible for him to render even the most monstrous creatures as less-than-beautiful. (You will remember that the Kraken in The Doom Fulfilled looked more bejeweled and silkily ornate than horrific.)
Burne-Jones returns to the detailed and rich background missing in The Finding of Medusa, though we are still nowhere near a natural landscape. The apple-rich bower here is purposefully illustrative rather than natural, setting the scene in an unreal space so essential to myth-making. The earth upon which Perseus and Andromeda stand looks almost alive with a sense of movement – as if, along with the lifeless head – everything around them is galvanized with a life of its own.
The remarkable armor of Perseus is depicted in loving detail, and the clothes draping Andromeda loop around her left arm are created with quiet expertise. The pool, seemingly constructed of both wood and marble, is skillfully done, though the very top (rendered in such a way that the water is visible to the viewer) seems, to my eye, slightly out of proportion.
I think the most remarkable thing about the picture is how Burne-Jones creates a wordless dialog between the three figures. Perseus and Andromeda reach across the pool to hold one-another: this is love, yes, but Perseus is also supporting Andromeda during what may be a shock to her senses. And follow the gaze of Perseus – he is not looking at the Gorgon’s reflection, but at the profile of his beloved Andromeda, instead.
And Andromeda – look at her gaze. Is she looking at the reflection of Medusa, or the handsome face of Perseus reflected in the water? And Medusa’s head is the top of the triangle – the focal point of all three characters even though she herself is not looking at anyone.
Returning to his inspiration, here is the passage in Morris that so inspired this picture:
May I not see this marvel of the lands
So mirrored, and yet live? Make no delay,
The sea is pouring fast into the bay,
And we must soon be gone."
"Look down", he said,
"And take good heed thou turnest not thine head."
Then gazing down with shuddering dread and awe,
Over her imaged shoulder, soon she saw
The head rise up, so beautiful and dread,
That, white and ghastly, yet seemed scarcely dead
Beside the image of her own fair face,
As, daring not to move from off the place,
But trembling sore, she cried: "Enough, O love!
What man shall doubt thou art the son of Jove;
I think thou wilt not die." Then with her hand
She hid her eyes, and trembling did she stand
Until she felt his lips upon her cheek;
Then turning round, with anxious eyes and meek,
She gazed upon him, and some doubtful thought.